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Tsha’hoñ’noñyeñ’dakhwa’ Onondaga Nation Arena

Walking up to the arena to meet Sherwin Hill and Bret Bucktooth, I was taken by the flags that danced in the breeze. The sun enhanced the colorful designs of the flags and the landscape behind.

People of all ages enjoying the ice arena at the Onondaga Nation Arena. On March 19th the ice will be closed to get ready for Lacrosse.

Once inside, I was greeted by very cheerful people to directed me to the “Elder’s Room.” This room overlooked the giant ice arena where people of all ages were skating. There was even a toddler who was learning with a metal frame to help her stay upright.

However, in less than a month, the ice will be taken out to put in turf for the Lacrosse season. “We have a variety of leagues here. They range from toddlers to adults,” said Sherwin.

He then introduced me to Bret Bucktooth, professional lacrosse player. I asked Bret when he began playing lacrosse, and he said, “I think I was born with it in my hand.” He laughed and added, “My dad put one in my hand when I was very young—I don’t remember not having a lacrosse stick in my hand. And when my son was born, I put a lacrosse stick in his crib!” Now he plays for the New England Black Wolves, and says he loves playing with younger guys.

“Lacrosse isn’t about size, speed or power. It’s about athleticism and intellect—that’s how you develop your stick skills.” Sherwin added, “And you need to be able to think quickly on your feet.”

What’s more, Bret has vast experience to share. He started playing on the nation with 10 or 12 kids, and his dad, Freeman Bucktooth, was his 1st coach. “My dad is the first one who taught me how to be a complete player particularly when you don’t really have enough kids for a team. You have to learn every position and fill in the gaps. He also taught me to never stop learning—‘be a sponge’ he would say.”  This led to Bret’s success at Lafayette High School, and Syracuse University where he studied and played from 2003 to 2006. From there, he went pro and played for a few teams, but loves playing for the Black Wolves, where he plays now. “I’ve had the advantage of having some of the best coaches too. First my dad, then Coach Desko at SU, and now Jim Velman. Each has something unique to offer, and I was surprised by the style Coach Desko had when I first went to college. He didn’t micro-manage us, but he made sure you knew the expectations. He allowed to make your own decisions, but you knew you HAD to show up and be prompt.”

He now plays with other big name players like John Tavarez, the all-time all high scorer, and “young guys” like Lyle Thomson, for whom he now “marks.” Now that Bret considers himself as one of the older guys, he plays more defense and set up. It goes back to his initial lesion of being a “complete player.”

Bret Bucktooth playing for the New England Black Wolves. Bret is now paying it forward and following in his father’s footsteps by coaching now.

Now it’s time for Bret to follow in his father’s footsteps. He’s paying it forward by coaching now. I asked him what he liked best about coaching, and he replied, “I love seeing the little ones with their big helmets. They look like bobble heads.” You can see the joy for the game and the kids when he said that by the big smile on his face. The other advantage to coaching is, “It reteaches you the fundamentals. When you play for so long, you forget those sometimes. Coaching reminds you where it began and it makes you a better coach and player.” However, the first thing Bret teaches is fun!

Bret and Sherwin then explained the concept behind lacrosse. “It’s a healing game, and it’s meant to help you focus on positive things. You heal when you’re playing,” said Bret. It’s a good thing it’s a healing game, because the hardest part of lacrosse is overcoming injury. “First, it’s difficult to be away from your family because you have to travel a lot. The other hardship is not being able to play after you’ve been injured.” Said Bret, but then “you know you’ll get back to playing so you do what you have to do to get well.” The healing power of lacrosse provides medicine to the soul—you make new friends with other players, and “your family is always there to cheer you on,” said Sherwin.

In the Elder’s Room, I saw the Nation’s greatest lacrosse players, but I was embarrassed that I only knew Chief Oran Lyons. However, I plan to learn a lot more about the game this summer. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that we’re open to our neighboring communities. Anyone can come and watch the games. As a matter of fact, we hope more people will come to the games.” stated Sherwin, the director of the arena.

The arena was built in 2001 and        was completely funded by the Onondaga Nation. However, they would love to show everyone what the facility has to offer. Inside, there a snack bar and tables to congregate between games. Kids lacrosse is free!  And junior and senior games are only a $5.00 admission fee! “You’ll see players from age 3 or 4 up to 70,” explained Sherwin. While they run some camps, most of the summer is booked with games where they compete with other Nations. There are some players from Jordan-Elbridge and Lafayette, and all kids are welcome.

“Lacrosse isn’t about size, speed or power. It’s about athleticism and intellect—that’s how you develop your stick skills.” Sherwin added, “And you need to be able to think quickly on your feet.”

What I loved most about doing this story was how warm and welcoming everyone was to me from the ladies standing outside and in the office, and then Sherwin and Bret. I want to send a huge “THANK YOU” to everyone at Tsha’Hoñ’noñyeñ’dakhwa’ and remember that everyone is welcome to visit the arena on the Onondaga Nation!


Janet LaFrance